Whether you're talking to a colleague, a close friend, or even a perfect stranger, the conversation often is the same.

"How's it going?" "Good! Just busy."

This refrain is the default for so many people in our personal and professional circles. However, busyness shouldn't be viewed as a status symbol--it doesn't make us happier, and it doesn't make us more productive. It often means we are just misusing our time.

Years ago, in one of our quarterly offsite meetings, a leadership team member told our facilitator, "I just don't have enough time." The facilitator looked at her, then at all of us, and said, "As a leader, 'not enough time' is an excuse you all must take out of your vocabulary. If you are waiting for all this free time to come, it's never going to happen. It's about what you prioritize and how you use your time. Effective leaders know how to prioritize what's most important."

His words have stuck with me. Though I am often tempted to describe myself as busy, I have worked to remove that instinct and have encouraged my team to do the same. High achievers have long known that busyness is not valuable. Instead of saying "I'm busy," they do these three things.

1. Prioritize 'important' versus 'urgent.'

Time is your most valuable resource, and you must spend it accordingly. That means putting careful thought into your top priorities and removing unnecessary things from your schedule. Steven Covey's Eisenhower Urgent/Important principle teaches us to place to-dos on a grid according to their urgency and their importance. Often, we prioritize tasks the following way:

  1. Urgent and Important
  2. Urgent and Not Important
  3. Important and Not Urgent
  4. Not Urgent and Not Important

A common mistake is to prioritize urgent tasks, not important ones. Things that are important, but not urgent, often concern big picture thinking and strategy that will transform your business and shape your life. Make sure to dedicate time to those tasks, rather than clogging your schedule with busy work that is urgent, but not important. This will cut down on your feeling of busyness and dedicate your time to long-term goals.

2. Schedule based on your core values.

Many people find that the more successful they are, the more people and things demand their time. High achievers know it's critical to prioritize things that are aligned with their personal and company core values and dedicate their time to the people who are most important. Invariably these are the things that will bring the most fulfillment and will increase rather than deplete your energy.

Start by taking a detailed audit of your schedule and determine how much time you are dedicating to things that connect to your core values. Are you wasting time on things that will not matter in the long term? Are you missing out on time with your loved ones because you are doing unnecessary busy work? The answer to those questions will tell you a lot about how well you are designing your schedule.

3. Understand that you are accountable for how you spend your time.

Management expert Peter Drucker has said that effective leaders manage and consolidate their time. If you hold yourself fully accountable for how you spend your time, you can make conscious choices to limit your busyness and focus on top priorities.

It is counterproductive to book 100 percent of your time; successful people know that rest and relaxation are necessary. Warren Buffett famously has a nearly empty calendar, which gives him flexibility to spend time thinking and strategizing, rather than sitting in meetings all day.

When an important task doesn't get done, it is vital to acknowledge that you have chosen to use your time doing something less productive. Instead of saying "I ran out of time," try saying "I chose to do X today instead of Y" or "I'm focusing on the wrong things." Once you acknowledge that you control your time, you can hold yourself accountable for misusing it and decide to improve.

Managing your time is not easy--many people go through their entire lives without figuring out how to do it. But simply saying "I'm busy" is a crutch that keeps leaders from evaluating and improving their time management. Prioritize what is important, make time for people who matter, and understand that only you control your time. Then, when people ask how you are, you'll have a better answer than "busy."

Published on: Feb 11, 2019
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.